Donald Ealy shuffles across an empty Center Street in Park West. Ealy’s tired eyes and thin mustache adorn his weathered face; a patterned cardigan and brown driving cap lend him an air of aged dignity.
“When I went to prison, my eyes wasn’t open,” Ealy says. “I wrote the judge a letter thankin’ him for savin’ my life. I had 30 years. The judge brought me back to court because he said he had never got a letter like this before, and he said the letter was so sincere … he brought me back to court and took 15 years away.”
Donald was born and raised in Milwaukee; he grew up in the old Lapham Projects. “It was beautiful,” he says. “It was beautiful.”
Ealy was one of 17 children — he had 10 sisters. Their father who wasn’t around much. From an early age, Donald learned to take care of himself, and to respect women, he says.
“I learned how to raise my kids. You know? And, I never—I got five daughters — never put a hand of neither one of them.”
It also taught him some applicable skills, and helped him find his calling. “I had to learn how to cook. My sisters didn’t cook for me,” Donald says. “That’s my passion! Cookin’ is my passion.”
“I like to feed people.”
Already a father at 20, Ealy says he wasn’t able to find work.
“Some ‘a the big dope boys in town, you know, [said] ‘Man, look, your kids gotta eat,’” he recalls.
So, he got into the game. Eventually, at 39, it all unravelled. “When I got busted, I had eight ounces ‘a cocaine and $64,000 in cash, and 30 years behind it.”
As a result of Ealy’s letter, he got half that sentence. But it was still painful. “My daughter came to federal prison. She was like 12,” he says. “I’ll never forget the day. My sister and my mother and them brought her up there … and she [said], ‘Hey, daddy, daddy!’ And, then, when they was gettin’ ready to leave, she stayed in the chair. She said, ‘Bye, y’all. Bye — I’m stayin’ with my daddy.’”
Donald laughs a laugh filled with regret. They had to tell her she couldn’t stay — that she had to leave, too. “She just cried and cried and cried,” he says.
“When I went back to the cell, I was cryin’. Because I felt like, that I was neglecting her.”
“When I came out the next time she came, I had tears in my [eyes]. She said, ‘Daddy, what’s wrong with you?’ ‘I feel like I’m neglecting you,’” says Ealy. “She said, ‘No, daddy. No, I love you.’ ‘I love you too, but I’m still neglecting you, because if I hadn’t did this stupid thing, I’d be there with you.’”
Every week, they traveled back and forth from Wisconsin to Indiana for her to see him. Donald, who had four daughters at the time, says the experience taught him a lot. Since he was released in 2010, he’s lived honestly, and had two more children — a boy and a girl, five and six years old.
“My daughters used to hate me, because they felt that I wasn’t a dad. And that made me feel so sad, because somethin’ that I brought into the world didn’t love me as much as I loved them.”
That’s not the case anymore — Donald’s daughters are proud to say they love him, he says through a tearful smile. One daughter even took him in after he left prison. Referring to his kids, Ealy says, “They’re the ones who, honestly … to me, changed my life.”
These days, he says, “I try to keep my kids closer to me, and let them know how much I love ‘em.”
The same year he was released, Ealy started working as a chef at the Wisconsin Center downtown. He’s been there ever since. At 55, all of a sudden, a host of opportunities are open to him.
“I wanna own my own restaurant,” Donald says. “But, what I mainly wanna do, I wanna get some ‘a these young kids down here jobs.”
“… what I didn’t have.”
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